Is this the end of Flash? Well. . . maybe.

Flash animation gave us high hopes for free form motion design on the Web. Finally, designers were able to position objects where we wanted, make them move, transform, scale and do all sorts of visual effects. All of this, with little worry about user specs, screen sizes, and coding. Seemed like the Web was finally in the domain of the designer.

The honeymoon soon ended as Flash integrated the need for ActionScript 3. Now, simple commands like ‘play’ and ‘go to’ are no longer point and click commands in a nice interface. Instead, all of Flash’s actions are done with dreaded lines of manual code. Not intuitive, and far from easy to adapt.

Yet, despite the pain, we still search blogs and crack open books to learn what’s needed to use AS3. Google becomes our guide, and we sample and search for examples that work. We used Flash as a fairly consistent tool for Web projects, that is, until Mr. Jobs decided  it couldn’t come out to play on his shiny new phone :-(

So why no Flash on iPhone?

Well, simply put, Flash a resource hog. That little plug in that runs in the background sucks up a lot of memory and processing power. This equals more than just slowness, it means less battery life.  Plus, Flash depends on click actions like mouse up and mouse down. In case you didn’t notice, those are actions you can’t do with your finger.

At first, designers were not too happy about Flash being left out of the growing mobile market. Smartphones are cool, and we wanted to design for them. Besides, being a capable Flash designer took a lot of time and effort, which now seems wasted. True, Flash is a frustrating program, but it does things that no other program can do. The transitions and effects are amazing and very small in file size (great for online). But if it can’t play on mobile, then we just need to kiss it good-bye, right?

Well, Flash really doesn’t need to leave anytime soon. It’s mobile ‘sort of’ replacement, HTML5, is a new technology with lots of promise, but still needs to mature. The biggest issue is browser compatibility with Internet Explorer. In fact, all of the millions of XP users in the corporate world cannot use most of the HTML5 features. This creates a problem if you need any sort of serious animated demo for business.

So how do we solve this issue of desktop vs. mobile animation? Are we back to the old days of creating multiple versions for different users? Well, yes… for now.

Let’s say you need an animated demo that shows your product reaching multiple customers with boxes and arrows moving about. To make sure all of your audience would see this, we first develop the actions in Flash, and use that for the IE8 and older users. Then, we convert it to an HTML5 format for the rest of your audience. A bit of custom code will send the right file based on what the device the viewer is using.

Yea, I’m simplifying things, and leaving out one major factor: not every action in Flash can translate to HTML5. Click buttons, complex transitions and other actions just don’t work. In these cases, you need a designer who’s experienced in both Flash and HTML5. That way, they create an initial Flash project that doesn’t use effects that won’t work in HTML5. Knowing what works and what doesn’t is key to making the piece right in the first place.

But what about Existing Flash animation?

This is a bit tricky and will probably fall on the old trial and error method. A lot depends on how the piece was created, and what actions were used. Some are quite obvious, others, not so much. We’ve seen animations translate almost perfect, others fail miserably. In many cases, it just requires some re-work in Flash to use alternative methods that work with HTML5. Or more often, it takes some compromise.

So does that mean Flash will live forever?

We’re doubtful, but there is hope. Adobe was very slow to react to HTML5, but they are making progress. The latest version does include some HTML5 tools and converters. But like lots of Adobe’s products, the first versions are flaky at best. On the other side, we’re seeing new stand alone HTML5 products in the works with lots of potential. We’re not sure if these new products will eventually kill Flash, or  just keep crossing over each other. Personally, I’d like to focus on products that actually work as intended. Historically, Adobe has  used their customer base as Guinea pigs, feeding us new features that were obviously not tested. Major fixes are often left for the next ‘upgrade’, which translates to more money out of our pockets for something that should have worked in the first place.

So what about the competition?

This is something that baffles the mind. HTML5 was coming, and Adobe was caught with their pants down.  So why didn’t some smaller, more nimble software company step up and launch a killer program for HTML5? Don’t know. Maybe as designers, we all under estimate the complexity of software development.

But to be fair, there were a few smaller companies making HTML5 software that did something. We had high hopes for Hype from Tumult. On paper, it sounded idea. Flash like animation that works with ALL browsers, even the oldies. If you can animate in Flash, you can produce in Hype. Well… maybe not so much.

Hype really wasn’t a true HTML5 program, and the interface just didn’t live up the ‘hype’. Clunky, buggy, and just strange to say the least. We tried it for a few weeks, and it ended up on the shelf. But hey, it was only a $50 waste, we’ve paid more for Flash plug-ins that didn’t do squat!

So is there anything else on the horizon?

There’s one technology that we’ve been using with great success, and it’s not even something that’s new: jQuery. This is a combination of JavaScript and advanced CSS mixed in with custom code feed from previously built libraries. It was developed solely for Web, is very light weight, and even has a version optimized for mobile. The effects are amazing, and you probably have seen a million examples without even knowing it.

At this stage, jQuery is not a complete replacement for Flash, nor was it intended to be. It was developed to bring interaction and visual effects to the Web based on standards that existed, and ones to come. But unlike Flash, it’s very open source with tons of people doing development. It’s also not really an application, so to customize it, we have to dig into the code (still, better than AS3).

I believe there is an opportunity for a software company to develop a hybrid jQuery/HTML5 application, with a designer friendly interface, that delivers some powerful tools. It’s a proven method that works great for the platform, and adapts very well to mobile.

So maybe Adobe can help us out, and bring us a nice, easy to use jQuery/HTML5 application? Please?

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